Human rights leaders call for Nigeria to be redesignated as religious freedom violator — By: Catholic News Agency

A map of Nigeria. / Credit: Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Dec 14, 2023 / 13:17 pm (CNA).

More than two dozen human rights advocates are urging Congress to call on the State Department to put Nigeria back on a list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.

In 2020, the State Department designated Nigeria a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report. The country was placed on the list “for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.“

Then, in 2021, the Biden administration removed Nigeria, a nation notorious for extreme levels of religious persecution, from the CPC list.

“As religious freedom advocates and proponents, and leaders of grassroots organizations with millions of American members, we appeal to you to urgently respond to the Department of State’s failure to adequately address egregious, systematic, and ongoing religious persecution in Nigeria as required by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998,” said the Dec. 12 letter with 29 signatories.

Catholic clergy in particular have been targeted in the West African nation. Aid to the Church in Need reported that since early 2022, 100 Catholic priests in the country have been abducted and still haven’t been freed, with 20 being murdered, the letter said. 

In recent months, one priest was kidnapped while visiting the sick and another religious brother was kidnapped and murdered

The letter also calls for the appointment of a special envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad region and urges members of Congress to support and co-sponsor legislation co-authored by New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith and Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar. That legislation would call for the State Department to appoint the envoy and designate Nigeria as a CPC.

Citing reporting from the Christian religious freedom watchdog Open Doors, the letter said that a “staggering” 90% of Christians killed worldwide for their faith in 2022 were murdered in Nigeria, an increase of 10% from the previous year.

The letter said that militants among Fulani Muslim herders have been responsible for most of the killing and “have been allowed to act largely with impunity.”

The letter also said that while some Muslims have been targeted by militants among the Fulani Muslims, Nigerian Christians were almost eight times more likely to be killed and six times more likely to be kidnapped than Muslims from October 2019 to September 2022, according to the Observatory for Religious Freedom in Africa.

“Catholic priests, evangelical pastors, and Methodist bishops have been special targets of kidnapping by Fulani and unidentified gunmen, typically shouting ‘Allahu Akbar,’” the letter said.

The letter said that about 17,000 churches have been burned and attacked since 2009, including the 2022 Pentecost massacre at St. Francis Xavier Owo Catholic Parish in the Ondo Diocese, which left 39 Catholic worshippers killed and more than 80 injured.

“We are not aware of a single case that has been prosecuted,” the letter said. 

The letter said that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has determined that the Nigerian government has “routinely failed to investigate these attacks and prosecute those responsible, demonstrating a problematic level of apathy on the part of state officials.”

“IRFA requires frank assessments in the face of such grave religious freedom violations. The Secretary of State should acknowledge that Nigeria has ‘engaged in or tolerated’ severe religious freedom violations, the statutory criteria warranting CPC designation,” the letter said.

“This is particularly important since the United States is a major partner of Nigeria, having given it over $1 billion in foreign aid in 2022 alone,” the letter said.

Among the letter’s signatories are prominent Catholics including Sam Brownback, former Kansas governor and former U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom; Leonard Leo, the former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See; and George Weigel, an author and distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Another Catholic signatory is Nina Shea, senior fellow and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, who told CNA Thursday that “Nigeria has become increasingly lawless where crime is rampant yet there is also an obvious pattern of attacks against Christian leaders, their churches, and entire Christian villages.”

“The government consistently and over many years has failed to take effective action to protect these innocent targets and lets Fulani extremists kill and pillage with impunity,” she said.

“For millions of Nigerian Christians, religious freedom is negated. Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken must follow the law and designate Nigeria on the CPC list of egregious religious violators,” she said.

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